Leo Marx’s work Machine in the Garden provides a metaphor for the feelings of longing and anxiety in the early Americas. Marx describes as lush, unexplored “garden,” or pioneer America, that is in a tumultuous relationship with the “machine,” or social and technological advancements throughout American history. The “machine” overwhelms the “garden” and attempts to cultivate raw resources for consumption. Marx’s thesis, therefore, is that the “machine” alters the landscape in order to make it fit current measures of productivity.
This metaphor is very important to understand when studying the expansion of post-independence America westward. Before being freed from colonial ties, America was strictly an east coast nation with settlements along the Atlantic and rugged outposts west of the Appalachians. Reliance on agriculture and shipping did not require vast expanses of land. Great Britain did not force the issue of exploring and exploiting America’s raw resources and the Americans were ill-equipped to survey their land between independence and the War of 1812.
This trend changed following independence and the Louisiana Purchase. Land was now open for settlement and, to some, waiting to be cultivated. Technology was not up to the task at that point. The rise of the railroad signaled not only the dawn of truly American technology, but also the dawn of a new geographically unified America. The railroad, along with new lumber techniques that allowed for more rapid cutting, tore threw the unexplored land to the Pacific Ocean.
Once transportation into the “garden” was possible, land became a profitable commodity. Prospectors came westward to mine for gold and silver. Their techniques included drilling rock and using the power of water to break down mountains and hills filled with precious minerals. In a sense, prospectors and miners turned nature against itself by using “machine” to harness the power of the “garden.”
Agriculture also changed the new land. In California, “bonanza” farming was common. This technique used combines, machines that combined reaping and threshing, to cultivate huge amounts of land in a matter of days. In other areas of the West, farming was done with smaller, horse-driven devices utilizing the reaper technology created by Cyrus McCormick. These agricultural technologies helped turn an untamed land into something familiar.
Marx’s metaphor is extremely useful in discussing the 18th and 19th century development of America from a raw wilderness into a land of opportunity for millions of Americans. It allows the reader a clear understanding of the dynamic development of America via an intense period of technological advancement and ingenuity created out of necessity.